I’ve got a Florida friend who likes to give me a good ribbing anytime I complain about soaring crab prices when I go out to pick up a couple dozen here in Chesapeake Country. “Those expensive ‘Chesapeake’ crabs of yours are probably from here—I watch them load the trucks and head north a couple of times a week,” my friend says.
And being like any other good Maryland native, I quickly inform him that my sensitive Free State palate can sniff out any imposter crustaceans or crabmeat that aren’t from the Chesapeake Bay. Which is probably a load of crap, if I’m honest. But legislators in Maryland this week will hear a bill designed to remove some of that confusion, and it’s got crab cake lovers paying close attention.
Maryland House Bill 913, says the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Eric Luedtke, is designed to prevent restaurants and seafood packing houses from labeling any crabmeat product that comes from outside Maryland as “Maryland Crab.” For example, if you pulled into a dock and dine establishment in Maryland’s part of the Chesapeake Bay to enjoy a crab cake, the restaurant could not label it as a “Maryland crab cake” unless the crabmeat it’s made with—you guessed it—came only from Maryland.
The same would go for processed crabmeat sold by the pound. The problem has historically been with seafood processors and restaurants labeling crabmeat (or the dishes made from it) as “Maryland” or “U.S. Crabmeat” when the crabmeat may have been packed halfway around the world—and may even be a different species of crab altogether.
So what’s the incentive for using this imported crab? Easy, it costs about half as much. Imports of crabmeat from Asia and Latin America have been giving Chesapeake Country watermen and crab processors a run for their money ever since Steve Phillips (of Phillips Seafood fame) introduced blue swimming crab crabmeat products to America from Asia in the early ’90s.
Truth be told, it can be difficult to tell the difference between some imported crab meat and the real deal once you mix it in with typical crab cake ingredients such as mayonnaise, Old Bay, Dijon mustard, and parsley flakes. And some restaurants take advantage of that fact by using the imported crabmeat, but charging premium prices for what they’re claiming is a local dish.
A preliminary step in the crabmeat controversy came with the inception of Maryland Seafood Marketing’s “True Blue” program, which in 2012 began certifying restaurants that use only crab meat from Maryland crabs in their crab cakes. The idea was not only to give assurance to customers that the crab cakes they were eating were made from Maryland crabs, but also to support the watermen who harvest them, and the packing houses that process the meat.
It means that if you truly want to “eat local,” you can find a certified restaurant that has been vetted by Maryland Seafood. But some people think programs such as this, or any new laws, will be impossible to enforce. Even the most respected crabmeat packing companies have to supplement their catches from outside Maryland when local supplies run low.
It’s a supply and demand issue, according to Joe Brooks, owner of J.M. Clayton Company, whom I spoke with last summer during a story assignment. J.M. Clayton is the oldest crab processing company on the planet, having started its operations in 1890 in Hoopersville, MD. When I asked Brooks about the True Blue program and rumblings about crabmeat labeling legislation he said that while he’d support a law regarding truthful labeling, that it could also be problematic.
“It’s no secret that we sometimes have a problem meeting demand, which means some of our crabs come from other states," Brooks says. "It’s generally only across the line in Virginia, but sometimes we have to reach further into North Carolina. When we can get them from Maryland waters, that’s what we prefer to do. But as far as the imports go, yes, those should be clearly labeled by country of origin.”
As to whether one can tell the difference between Asian, Venezuelan, or U.S. crabmeat, the jury is still out. The Washington Post took a stab at it in 2012, and the imports failed spectacularly. Me? I may not be able to tell the difference between Louisiana, North Carolina, or Florida crabs (some of my friends say they can), but I’ve always been able to pick out the imports when it comes to picked crabmeat. If the bill passes, you may not have to worry about tasting the difference; you’ll know the components just by reading. The bill will be heard on February 26.